Making Makan: Baechu kimchi

Korean market scene.  Kimchi stall. Korean giant clay jar Kimchi lecture

Kimchi is one of those foods that makes people either lick their chops, or shudder in revulsion. 

I belong firmly in the former camp.

Degree of difficulty:
HIGH.  Not dangerous or technically difficult.  Just laborious and time-consuming.

Will do again?
Definitely good to have done it at least once.  But the answer is no, especially if I can find a baechu kimchi at the supermarket with a seafoody, umami flavour.

What to do with kimchi
At the end of this article, you will find a list of ways to use kimchi.  (Apart from eating it straight out of the jar, that is.)

“Hello, Ajumma!”

Napa cabbage, the main ingredient in baechu kimchi.

That was how MOTH (Man of the House) greeted me teasingly, when he stepped in sporting a Helmet Head and saw me wringing the quartered napa cabbage like a face towel.

To put things in context, that greeting is closer to “Hello, middle-aged auntie” than “Hello, you stunning creature”.  But there is a reason for it – and it isn’t that “stunning creature” and me don’t go together.  🙂

(Helmet Head: A stripey hair-style resulting from one’s buzz cut being squished by a cycling helmet for a prolonged period.)

Step 1.
(1) Soaking napa cabbage in salt solution.
(2) See how it shrank after an hour.
(3) Sprinkled more salt between leaves – see how it shrank further overnight.
(4) Wrung-out napa cabbage.

Digression: What is an Ajumma?

Ajumma (아줌마) is a Korean term which means a married woman, or someone who looks old enough to be married.  So, technically, you could call a 23-year-old wife or a 54-year-old single woman ajumma.

But the young wife probably won’t like you for it, as the term is often used to refer to older Korean women.  The stereotypical ajumma wears a short, practical perm and a visor for essential sun protection.  The term comes with significant baggage, as some people view ajummas as a formidable species, brusque and ruthless in the fight to secure seats on public transport.

Me, I have no such prejudices.  I’ve had only pleasant experiences with older ladies in Korea.  Countless ajummas attended to us politely and attentively in Seoul’s neighbourhood eateries, despite the language barrier.


I saw rows and rows of ajummas one morning in Seoul, working hard at their stalls at the famous KwangJang Market.  In a consumer-friendly, competitive arrangement, all stalls in any particular row sold the same food item.

We pulled out a bench to sample joekbal and sundae – not ice-cream, but a mild-tasting Korean blood sausage served with a spiced salt mix.  The ajumma-in-charge lives in my memory for throwing in makkoli (a fermented rice alcohol) for free at 10 in the morning…and we drank every drop too.  It was a little bit sweet and the tiniest bit fizzy – I prefer it to soju.

So what’s with ajummas and kimchi?  Well, there were numerous rows of kimchi stalls at KwangJang Market, all staffed (and probably owned) by an army of ajummas.

Korean market scene.  Kimchi stall.

Sure, kimchi is made by a range of men and women of all ages, in factories and eateries, and at home.  Still, the kimchi stall spectacle has made MOTH and me forever associate kimchi-making with ajummas. 

In my mind’s eye, they all wear elbow-length, industrial-strength rubber gloves, and the air is saturated with salty, spicy smells as they vigorously massage their secret fiery mix into colossal tubs full of napa cabbages.

It doesn’t help my ajumma-kimchi association when I find out a Korean adult living in Sydney eats only kimchi made by his mum (surely of ajumma vintage).  She flies in twice a year from Korea to deliver the stuff.

Why not just buy kimchi?

My kimchi from the (secret) restaurant finally ran out.  I had already tried to extend it by adding more of my own vegetables…twice.  There was no more to be done, and no more of that drool-inducing kimchi.

I had paid $10 for a box after some coaxing.  The initial position was a politely delivered: “We don’t sell our kimchi as takeaway.  It is just for our customers to eat at the restaurant.”

Yes, they make it in-house, and okay, we’ll reveal that it has that more-ish umami taste because it contains fermented seafood.

And finally (joy, oh joy):  “Yes, our chef will let you have a box for $10.”

I had tried numerous supermarket brands before.  To be honest, I liked all of them well enough.  But this restaurant version had an extra dimension which has now ruined everything I’ve tasted before.

Kimchi - Korea's national superfood. 
If Usain Bolt were Korean, he'd be advertising kimchi.

Not all the supermarket brands list fermented seafood in the ingredients list, so maybe that was the key.

My reverse-engineering streak then kicked in: now that the secret ingredient has been revealed, can I make something that tastes just as good, for less than what I paid?

And that was how an official BAECHU KIMCHI DAY was declared in our household.

Baechu kimchi and ponytail kimchi

Baechu kimchi, made from napa cabbage (a.k.a. Chinese cabbage) is the most common type of kimchi.  But there are over 200 types of kimchi.

For example, there’s the charmingly named ponytail kimchi, with an even more amusing nickname of bachelor kimchi.

This classic and much-loved kimchi is so named for looking like the topknot which was the conventional hairstyle for Korean bachelors in olden days. 

My 3 steps in making baechu kimchi

Step 1.  Soak the napa cabbage in brine to leach out, then wring out, as much liquid from the vegetable as possible.  Pictures are at the start of this article.

Step 2.  Make the marinade.  Interesting ingredients for the marinade include grated Asian pear, glutinous rice flour (a.k.a. sweet rice flour) and fermented seafood.

Step 2: Making the kimchi marinade.

(3) Combine marinade with napa cabbage.  Traditional recipes dictate that you do this while the napa cabbage leaves are still attached to the stem.  The idea is to spread the marinade in between the leaves.

Being unorthodox and disobedient, I cut up the napa cabbage first.  (The cutting up is traditionally done after the marinating period of 3 weeks.)

My baechu kimchi isn’t as red as the commercial ones, as I added less than the recommended amount of the potent Korean red pepper powder (gochukaru).  The intention was to have it spicy, but not alarmingly so, to enable the kids to consume some comfortably.

Despite instructions to let it sit for 3 weeks, I couldn’t help having a bowlful.  It tasted too fresh, of course, ie the napa cabbage was on the crunchy side (I like mine limp), and the spring onions had the raw onion taste.

And it was pretty spicy despite my best efforts.  My daughter panted after eating it.  Then she asked for more.

8 days later…

My baechu kimchi is now 8 days old.  It has mellowed a bit and actually became less spicy.  I’d like it to have more of a fermented seafood kick, but those salted mini shrimps are very salty indeed, so I can’t add too much.

It’s decent, if I may say so myself.  But in view of the drawn-out process of making it, I will continue the search for my perfect kimchi in Korean supermarkets throughout Sydney…once I get through the three jars in my fridge.

Ways with kimchi

Here are some ideas on using kimchi in your cooking.  (Also useful for hardcore kimchi fans to tempt and convert their uninitiated dining companions.)

Minced meat fried with kimchi, onions and zucchini
kimchi and mince 

Kimchi with grilled meat and Korean bean paste, wrapped in a salad leaf
beef recipes, bulgogi, marinade for steak 9How to eat Korean leaf wrap ssambeef recipes, bulgogi, marinade for steak 13Eating Korean leaf wrap ssam in one bite

Kimchi pancake. This was the first taste of kimchi for 
my primary-school-aged kids, made by our resident Korean boarder a year ago.
That occasion marked a point of no return for the kids.  These days, 
they salivate at the sight of kimchi.  And they eat it straight from the jar.
kimchi jeon

And let’s not forget that old chestnut – fried rice.  Specifically, rice fried with chopped kimchi and some meat, topped with a soft-centred fried egg.  Add cheese if you wish – some Koreans do.

Or you could go all fancy fusion and do as they do at Le Cordon Bleu.  The venerable institution has been known to teach the making of fried kimchi camembert.  I kid you not.  Perhaps the underlying principle is:

Pungent + Pungent = Rapture

“A man can live without a wife, but not without kimchi.”  
– Traditional Korean saying

Like many Making Makan posts, there’s no recipe here, as this is just for kicks, not for serious instruction.  If you’d like to make kimchi, there are many helpful and detailed suggestions in Google under “how to make kimchi”.

If you enjoyed this article, share it with your mates using the buttons below.  Or send me a comment on what your go-to kimchi dish is.